“This is what Davis Cup is all about.” It’s the phrase you hear often, and you could have repeated it many times over today during Mardy Fish’s 6-2, 4-6, 4-6, 6-1, 9-7 win over Stan Wawrinka in the first rubber between the U.S. and Switzerland.
What Davis Cup is all about, in this case as in so many others, is not necessarily brilliant or unfaltering individual performances. It’s about the messier and more human drama of courage and failure crossing from one side of the net to the other every few games. The shot we’ll remember is Fish’s perfectly controlled angle volley to end it, but the path he took to get there was hardly a smooth one. For five sets and four hours, both he and Wawrinka struggled, and were inspired by, the particular pressure of Davis Cup.
Amid all of the winners and errors, the erratic serving, terrific drop shots, poor return choices, brave last stands, and general tactical confusion, one moment stands out as decisive. At 1-1 in the fourth set, Wawrinka reached 15-40, double break point. He had begun the previous two sets by breaking Fish early and had won them both. By this point, Fish appeared lost, tentative, unsure of how aggressive to be on the unfamiliar, and extremely bumpy, red clay underneath him. His forehand lacked conviction, his normally reliable backhand was rolling timidly into the middle of the net, and he couldn’t buy a return on a big point. From 15-40, though, Fish found one shot that worked for him: his serve. While his first-serve percentage hovered in the 40s for most of the match, he used it to get out of this jam. Fish eventually saved three break points; more important, he was energized by the moment. Instead of starting the set in the hole, he had made something positive happen, and you could see it in his body language.
Soon you could see it in Fish’s game, in the newfound decisiveness in his forehand and the newfound snap on his backhand return. He ran out the set 6-1 and looked ready to run out the match when he went up 4-2 in the fifth and had a look at a second serve on break point. But that would have been far too easy for Davis Cup. Wawrinka hit his second serve deep and Fish shanked his return 10 feet wide. He did the same on the next point. A minute later, Wawrinka had held, gotten the crowd to its feet, and was up 0-40 on Fish’s serve.
From that moment until the final point, anxiety seemed to flow from one side to the other with every point. Fish, with help from a tremendous retrieval and lob winner at 0-40, eventually held for 5-3. In his next service game, he reached match point. Now it was Wawrinka’s turn to find some courage. After chipping his way meekly through much of the fifth set, he suddenly rifled a backhand up the line and followed it with a crosscourt forehand winner. He broke for 5-5 and the two traded four routine holds to make the score 7-7. Then things got hairy again.
Wawrinka made four unforced errors to be broken for 8-7. Fish served for the match for a second time; naturally, things quickly went south for him. Wawrinka opened with a backhand winner and Fish followed with a nervous drop shot into the net. Wawrinka hit a backhand return winner for 15-40, but from there it was Fish’s turn to hold steady. He saved both break points with service winners, hit an ace to set up his third match point, and finished with what may have been his finest point and shot of the match. He snuck in on a forehand approach and nerve-lessly guided his forehand volley short and into the open court for the match.
It wasn’t pretty, but both players came off the mat and turned it into one more 15-round Davis Cup epic. Not that Fish really wanted to be in another one. After his two losses in the U.S’s tie against Spain last summer, including a crushing five-setter to Feliciano Lopez, the American said he had briefly thought of hanging up his racquets for good. The U.S. team must be happy he didn’t; today Fish essentially kept them alive against the Swiss. A roller-coaster defeat last year, a roller-coaster redemption this year. That's what Davis Cup is all about.